Party On! at Your Book Discussions
Shouldn't a book club be about the fun of sharing?
Posted Tue, 07/06/2010 - 16:00
Smiling about books and ready for a party.
An avid colleague once told me that facilitating a book discussion is the most fun we can have at work. She was right. However, she didn’t mention the three Rs of any professionally done book discussion: reading, rereading, and research. As lovingly dedicated book laborers, we do most of this in our off-time with little concern (or hope) for compensation since we have so much to do every day at work, and since we love doing it. As a result, we spend countless hours first reading, then revisiting and carefully plucking pertinent themes and discussable topics—the grand ideas that make for great discussions. Then we grab some biographical information and additional questions off NoveList, Gale Literature Resource Center, the publisher’s website, reviews, Amazon, Booklist, and so forth, not to mention all the pertinent books, whether criticism or biography. As information professionals, we cast a wide net.
Now—all that hard work that you are so proud of? Eviscerate it. Spend time on the ugly necessity of editing and cut it down to size.
True, the 30 hours (or more) of research and development you have done so far is rewarding and interesting. You are the expert on your book, its author, and all related works, precedents, influences (not to mention read-alikes for takeaway), and life’s grand ideas as represented by your book.
But a discussion that would do your research justice could last 10 hours. You have to pare your presentation way down. Then—and only then—will you feel you can lead a discussion you can honestly be proud of.
Work smarter, not harder
There’s no need for all this stress and worry. Take a break from the intense work of readying for a book discussion—and keep your library’s focus on books—by making your next book discussion a reader party.
Set up food and beverages, and then sit and relax. All you have to do is talk about your book—a book you want to read for once. After engaged patrons hang on your words, make it their turn. Sit back and let them do the work for you. Enjoy an easy, inexpensive, relaxed program that not only runs itself but brings it back to the book.
My first boss, Ann Weaver of Westchester (Ill.) Public Library, runs a tremendously successful summer reading program for adults. She signs people up, and they read whatever they want. At session’s end, they attend a party. In Westchester, Illinois, which has a population of 17,000, Ann’s parties attract dozens. Amazing statistics, for those of you who greet between two and six people at your discussions.
In conceptualizing Oak Park Readers, Oak Park (Ill.) Public Library’s very own book lovers’ appreciation society, I tried to do something similar. I brainstormed with colleagues and we boiled it down to one question: “What do people want out of these things?” We swapped tales of meager discussion turnouts and the gifts left behind: knickknacks, coffee mugs, toys. The lesson learned: Patrons have enough stuff. They love books, some even more than we do. Remember S. R. Ranganathan’s fourth law: “Save the time of the reader”? Well, we are here to save the time, rather than clutter the life, of the patron. So the concept was to bring it back to the book.
A no-stress book club
We did a lot of work on the front end to make Oak Park Readers as low-stress as possible for patrons and the facilitator. Still, I stressed and worried; we always want these things to be as good as possible and sometimes fret ourselves to disaster (but that’s another article). I thought back to library school—in particular, my Readers’ Advisory class. My professor, Joyce Saricks, taught us to glean whatever we could from everything associated with a book or genre, learning in depth about the author, what appeal the book held, and what genre it fit into according to that appeal.
Joyce also taught us how to deliver an effective and engaging booktalk. Read the book. Read the reviews. Read the flaps. Skim the book. Introduce it with publication date, genre, author, and number of pages. Deliver your knowledgeable synopsis. Then take it a step further and relate the book’s appeal by recommending read-alikes and bringing it home for your audience.
All well and good, but Readers’ Advisory was a semester-long course. How could I bring all this across to patrons in five minutes?
Moderating is key
The book-party concept was rolling. The moderator was ready. The concept was almost there—the idea of books being the focus. Good. But what else did it need? Patrons who will also booktalk.
That’s not as elusive as it seems. I was surprised at how much people wanted to open up and talk about their beloved book. At the desk, I sometimes marvel at how sophisticated and passionate patrons can be in effusing about media they love. Sharing about music, movies, or books is one of the most mutually satisfying transactions we can experience on the job. These conversations can take an hour and range through life experiences until, as professionals, we redirect the conversation back to recommendations.
The challenge, then, for an Oak Park Readers moderator, would be to channel and contain eager participants’ energy. But, I found, it didn’t matter. Each patron has his or her own style. The same nods of appreciation greeted my librarian’s talk and those following mine. Someone put my book in her pile for checkout. Minutes later, the next person took the floor.
One regular (we’ll call him Gene) likes to talk. At every book discussion, regardless of whether it is about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or The Feminine Mystique, Gene will somehow manage to direct the discussion to his favorite topic: himself. As moderators, this is when we have to do the hard work. With over 30 people eager to share their favorite recent read, I had to do the math and make sure Gene stuck to less than four minutes—not long for an average person, but a blink of an eye for him.
Even though Gene hides it well, he has feelings like everyone else. So from the outset, I make myself the bad guy, the referee, the moderator. Efficiency is key. At the program’s outset, make your introduction, thank everyone for coming, and explain the rules. State that talks will be limited to five minutes to give everyone time, and that the rule is one book per person unless there’s time for more (some people will bring a stack). When someone’s talk is going too long, remind them with a cue—a Frankenstein-like rise and approach will do. Keep in mind the amount of time possible per person. Rather than allowing a brilliant patron to expound at length on the great themes of her beloved text, make her wrap it up. Cut it short.
I’ve heard the line from many a colleague that there are always a few hard-to-handle discussion members who take up the bulk of our time. But the best perk of working in a library is the patrons. We are all in the business because we love serving people in the truest sense of the term. (It’s like being in the service—a sort of military for the mind.) I am constantly surprised at how intelligent, fascinating, and passionate our patrons are. Each is a bottomless well of life experiences and interests, even the aforementioned Gene.
People clamored for more. Once the success of this program was established, our natural thought was to answer patron demand and have it more often. Big mistake. Its impact was diluted by holding the party monthly. No longer was it an occasional treat. As a regular program, it became a chore for librarians and patrons alike. Nothing we did helped. A specially designed T-shirt giveaway, better-quality refreshments, a big marketing push—all were useless in the face of having overplayed our hand.
Book discussion, R.I.P?
Is a reader party fun and easy to do? Yes. Buy a tray of savories, a tray of sweets, fixings for coffee and tea, read a book, prepare a booktalk, set up the room, provide a web presence or simply a Goodreads page, and sit back and enjoy.
Does a reader party take the place of a book discussion? Absolutely not!
Book discussions will always thrive. Recently a teen volunteer confided to me that her perfect library of the future would contain books that people could “live.” In other words, when she picks up Pride and Prejudice, she’s chatting with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.
A book discussion serves this function. Our relationship with a book doesn’t die when we put it down. The perfect library of the present serves as a place to keep that torch burning. The vicarious experience, the total immersion in the magic of the printed word, is what a book discussion not only sustains but builds upon. People will always be discussing Pride and Prejudice, and be the better for it.
A free-ranging session can add to your book discussion program. Think of that time the book discussion ended a bit early. You asked participants what was currently sitting on their nightstands. An hour later, you slowly backed away because the discussion had veered from the book Provenance to the handling of art to a great book someone just read about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to a local restaurant inspired by that painting to that book where the couple hits the road looking for the best restaurants—you get the picture.
In fact, a book party can be a great time to come up with your next book discussion selection. And many who attend Oak Park Readers take notes for their next discussion on what their fellow bibliophiles are promoting. A note, though: Rather than running every book discussion yourself, it may be better to just coordinate them. Give coworkers a chance to learn the ropes and run their own. A reader party is a great first training step.
The perky among us
This type of program is also great because we get to see who people really are—and it is rarely disappointing.
A reader party reveals people. I have had bad days made great by the endless pleasant surprises of patrons showing who they really are and strutting their literary stuff. People from their teens to their 80s attend Oak Park Readers to share their unique perspectives. A Korean immigrant attends to expound on her passion for Paul Auster and improve her nascent English. An older woman and book-club devotee brings her notepad to relate her lengthy observations on her chosen text. A young African-American woman takes notes as if she is in class, learning (which we all are doing). She perks up when Joanna, a spirited 19-year-old, delivers a post-mortem about J. D. Salinger, her favorite author. A Polish woman approaches me asking if it is OK to “study” Oak Park Readers and bring it back to her university.
Sharing is caring
Of course, I told her that it was perfectly acceptable—as well as flattering. Others have called and e-mailed to ask how I run this program, saying their manager wants them to implement something similar and asking whether that would be all right. I respond in the affirmative, because that is one of the great things about librarianship: We are professional sharers. We create, a colleague across the country (or the world) borrows, steals, riffs, and brings our creation a step further, improving on our idea.
Colleagues are sometimes surprised that I intentionally devised Oak Park Readers to be as easy to manage as possible. The idea all along was that anyone should be able to do it. And the one time I had to miss a party (I really was upset not to be there, these are fun!) it went off fine. There was a bit of a “substitute teacher” problem, though: When one patron wanted to briefly discuss a film, another said, “Alan would never allow that.” Apparently the friction was intense.
If I had been there, I would have calmed tensions, checked the clock, and told the film buff to go ahead and share.
ALAN JACOBSON is a volunteer coordinator, teaches computer classes, and leads film and book discussions in his capacity as librarian at Oak Park (Ill.) Public Library.